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Murray Journal

Holladay student’s quick instincts helped put out a fire to save school

Feb 09, 2024 11:59AM ● By Julie Slama

Cottonwood High senior Elliot Payne was recently honored at a Granite School District Board of Education for his quick assistance with a fire on the auditorium stage in December. (Photo courtesy of Granite School District.)

It was Thursday, Dec. 7, about two weeks before winter break, and 30 minutes before the bell would ring to mark the end of the school day.

Cottonwood High senior Elliot Payne and a group of his stage crew classmates were working in the Black Box Theatre on the set for the melodrama, which was to open in mid-January.

“It was a normal day like any other,” he said. “I was walking to get a drill from the auditorium and heard someone yell, ‘fire,’ so I ran over. I saw the stage lights had started to burn the curtain. I told someone to lower the stage curtain and raise the lights away from the curtain. Then another dude helped me pull the curtain away. I ran to find my teacher and get the fire extinguisher to put it out. I thought it was weird that it started from the stage lights; we use them all the time, and it never happens.”

Payne returned with the fire extinguisher and theater director Adam Wilkins.

“Adam slid me a chair. I got on it and pulled the pin on the fire extinguisher, then put the fire out,” said the 5-foot 11-inch student who said the retardant shot about 6 feet onto the curtain. “I’m good in crisis situations. I probably learned that from being in Boy Scouts. I saw the fire, I put it out. It’s a simple duty.”

Wilkins alerted the school assistant principals, Ashley Snarr and Jeremy Brooks, the latter who was on the phone with the principal.

They came, along with the substitute school resource officer, who called the fire department. Payne and Wilkins returned to the Black Box, but minutes later, they were later evacuated along with the student body.

That’s because Snarr saw the curtain back on fire in the smoky auditorium.

“It was circling smoke, and that’s when I noticed it was smoldering, and then, the curtain was on fire again,” she said. “So, the substitute officer quickly grabbed a ladder and put it out. About 30 seconds later, the fire department arrived along with our district maintenance crew. The stage lights are very strong, very hot. The damage was just to the curtain and a little bit of the metal rod. Our auditorium was not damaged at all, not even smoke damage.”

Outside, students thought at first it might have been a fire drill, but once the fire truck arrived, reality set in, Snarr said.

Payne realized he still had the drill in his hand yet and tried to lighten the mood.

“I was saying puns like, ‘This isn’t a drill,’” said the recent Eagle Scout, who not only was the stage crew shop foreman for “The Little Mermaid” production but also is on the football and track teams and sings in the choir.

Within minutes, the student body returned to their classrooms. Students in classes near the auditorium were moved to the opposite side of the school to prevent any smoke inhalation, Snarr said.

That night, the Granite (School District) Youth Symphony was set to perform on stage, but the concert was rescheduled. It was the only postponement on the auditorium schedule, she said.

“It was under control quickly,” Snarr said. “We have wonderful teachers and staff, and our drills have prepared us for these situations, but Elliot deserves a lot of credit. He was very calm. He saved our school.” 

Payne recently was honored at the Granite Board of Education with a plaque from the school board and a pendant from the fire department.

“I was told by the [Murray City] fire marshal that if we didn’t stop the fire, then it would have been millions in property damage, and the whole school would have been gone because it would have reached another higher curtain, and it would have kept burning since our auditorium is so high,” he said. “I gave a shout out to my family who was there and my Scout leaders who trained me for emergency preparedness.”

Payne, who is looking to pursue musical theater and emergency management in-state next fall, wants to both perform on stage and go into fire safety.

“My first words as a kid were ‘firefighters help people,’” said the Holladay teenager. “Now, I have a cool story about saving the school.” λ